Tag Archives: empathy

Would this study change Chekhov’s mind about academics?

In a study published yesterday in the journal Science, social psychologist researchers from The New School for Social Research in NY have found that reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular or non-fiction writing) has a greater impact on a subject’s understanding of emotional nuances, which, in turn, improves real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others. The study summary published in The New York Times‘ “Well” blog opens with a paragraph that immediately leaped out at me and might have caught your attention as well.

Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.


In the study, […] people who read excerpts from literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Wendell Berry) scored better than people who read popular fiction (Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Roberts Rinehart) on tests asking them to infer what people were thinking or feeling – a field that scientists call “Theory of Mind.”

People who read literary fiction also scored better than people who read nonfiction (in this case, pieces published in Smithsonian Magazine, like “How the Potato Changed the World”). Interestingly, when subjects were asked, they said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as popular fiction.

And in two experiments, some participants read nothing at all before taking the tests, yet performed as well as the participants who read popular fiction. Both of those groups made more mistakes on the tests than literary fiction readers, reported the researchers, Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate.

“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, “I would have thought reading in general” would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education.”

The report of this study’s findings raised a few questions for me, not the least of which being what’s the need for data to reinforce a point that English majors, their professors, and book lovers have argued for ages? I almost immediately answered that question with a reminder about the new Common Core standards being implemented in American schools, especially the addition of attention on non-fiction texts, which has been met with consternation (some from teachers, much from conservative politicians) about whether this shift will diminish the time spent teaching literature. Of course, since Chekhov wrote across genres (short stories, plays, articles, and what could be classified as early ethnographies) maybe he’s the key to bringing these different factions together. He’s already triumphed over the academics he lampooned in his pieces by becoming such a revered object of study for so many. On the other hand, I love imagining what kind of story he’d make out of this research, those who conduct it, and those who use its data for news reports and public policies.